Posted in Short Stories

Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain

Here is a classic line from Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the Rain”:

It was raining.

As usual, his understatement is brilliant.

An American couple are staying in an Italian hotel.  While it is raining, the wife sees a cat outside the window and attempts to rescue it.  That’s the overall plot to the story.  During the rescue attempt, the hotel-keeper and the maid go out of their way to make sure the wife is happy and doesn’t get wet.  Meanwhile, her husband, George, is in bed reading a book.  He exchanges a few words with her.

The endeavors of the hotel workers to pay attention to the wife go beyond the ordinary and contrast greatly with the way George pays attention to her.  I had a thought that the wife perhaps was someone well-known.  She is never given a name in the story.  Sometimes Hemingway says more with what he doesn’t say.  I can’t figure out another reason for the way she is fawned over by the hotel staff.  They almost have a protective air about them.

It’s not difficult to determine that her marriage may not be great; however, nothing gives the sense that it’s a bad marriage.  At least in this snapshot of their relationship, George does not seem to be taking a huge interest in his wife’s comings and goings.  I wonder if he sees how the staff treat her and if he wonders why like the reader might?  Or perhaps for some reason, he’s not surprised.

Posted in Fiction

Ishmael On Religion

I’ve found Ishmael, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick narrator, to have a wonderfully playful irreverence toward religion.  It’s interesting how often he encounters various beliefs, philosophies and worldviews.  I think his irreverence comes from simply calling things like he sees it.  He sums it up so well by saying “I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical..”.

Early in the novel, Ishmael finds himself having to share a bed with Queequeg, a pagan cannibal.  While he becomes fast friends with his sleep mate, it’s not without observing Queequeg’s meditation to his baby-god-idol Yojo.  Ishmael concludes this observation with one of the more famous and one of my favorite quotations from the novel, “Better sleeping with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”.

In his initial interview with Captains Peleg and Bildad, the owners of The Pequod, the eventual temporary home for Ishmael, he wheels and deals with these Quaker men who put up a tough fight in determining his salary.  He has some fun with the Captains’ manner of speaking using a plethora of ‘Thees’ and ‘Thous’ and finally refers to them as “Quakers with a vengence”.

When The Pequod meets with the ship Jeroboam, Ishmael encounters a man who considers himself the Archangel Gabriel.  Ishmael isn’t surprise by the delusions of this man as he was “nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers.”  Fear of disease keeps the crew of the Jeroboam from boarding The Pequod; however, the Captains of each ship attempt to have a conversation while the ships are lined up next to each other.  The waves and the wind make the ships’ ride a little choppy as well as the Captains’ conversation.

About the time that I’m laughing out loud at the various religious situations Ishmael encounters and his reactions and comments to them, he opts to become serious about his own religious ideas and his interest in whales in a paragraph that I think will become one of my favorites:

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty misty monster, to behold  him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor – as you will sometimes see it – glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts.  For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor.  And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.  And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions.  Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Posted in Short Stories

“The Bottle Imp” by Robert Louis Stevenson

The luck of the draw this week gave me Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Bottle Imp”, another “sell your soul to the devil” story.  It has some similarities to Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” which I read a few weeks ago.  Stevenson’s story is not as wordy as Wilde’s but it is longer than most of the short stories I’ve read.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this story takes place in Hawaii.  Between Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, I’ve grown to enjoy stories from the South Seas set in the mid nineteenth century.  Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is on my agenda sometime in the near future.

The Bottle Imp

The imp in the bottle grants wishes to whoever owns him; however, if the owner of the bottle dies while still in possession of the bottle imp, he spends the afterlife in eternal damnation.  If the owner sells the bottle imp, he must do so at a loss – selling it for less than he paid for it.  If he attempts to gain a profit from the sale, the bottle imp returns to him.

At the beginning of the story, I found these “rules” governing the bottle imp somewhat complicated.  Keawe uses the bottle to build an expensive house, be healed of a dreaded disease and to gain the love of his life, Kokua.  He passes the bottle around to a few friends, but ultimately it ends up back in his hands.  The aspect of the story that I enjoyed the most came as the bottle imp gradually decreased in value – as it would given its rules.   Keawe and Kokua didn’t question what might happen when the value of the bottle imp dropped below the lowest denomination of cash.

The story asks the same question most of these “sell your soul to the devil” stories ask.  What price is one willing to pay for the granting of their deepest desires?  This story, though, ends with a small, but humorous, twist.  This is another story I found in Stories and Poems For Highly Intelligent Children of All Ages collected by Harold Bloom.

Posted in Essays

Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s short collection of essays, Absence of Mind, which are based on lectures she gave regarding the conflict between religion and science.  While she is no doubt making a case for religion, this is not a creation versus evolution debate. Her thought process goes much deeper than the “sound bytes” one hears in the news (for either side).  She spends her time discussing what constitutes the human mind and the human soul.  For anyone who has read much of her work, they understand that she is well-read not just in history, literature and religion, but science, as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have difficulty writing about essays and it’s no different with this collection.  I probably read these essays too quickly.  Robinson’s work in general usually takes  a little more effort for me.  However, a couple of her points interested me.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

First, she confronts this idea of being “modern”.  According to Robinson, the idea that all things ancient cannot compare to our modern way of thinking doesn’t hold water:

Another factor  that seems to me to be equally important is the great myth and rationale of “the modern,” that it places dynamite at the foot of old error and levels its shrines and monuments.  Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it.

Second, the popular view of science, according to her, has taken out the mystery of the world and the universe.  From her viewpoint, true scientists are those that continue to explore, continue to wonder – who haven’t decided that now we know completely how things really work.  When reading her ideas about science, an excitement comes off the page that I rarely expect to encounter in one who is discussing religion.  While Robinson’s point regarding science seems valid to me, I have to admit that religious people can be equally good at taking the mystery out of the world – sometimes they think they have it all figured out, too.  Perhaps this is why Robinson is one of my favorite writers:  whether writing about science, history, religion, philosophy or literature, she never takes the wonder and mystery out of the world.

For anyone interested in science – especially psychology, sociology and anthropology – this could be a challenging read, even if one didn’t come to the same conclusions that she does.  Her collection When I Was A Child, I Read Books probably would appeal to a broader spectrum of readers.

Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”

“Feathertop” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a fantastic and fantastical story that will probably become a Halloween favorite of mine.  Mother Rigby, a New England witch, creates a scarecrow and allowing her creation to smoke a little of her tobacco, she brings him to life.

The story reminds me very much of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – only shorter.  Mother Rigby spruces up her scarecrow whom she names Feathertop.  As she sends him into town, she instructs him to look up a certain well-known government figure, Master Gookin and his daughter, Polly.  Apparently, Mother Rigby has something on Master Gookin even though the reader isn’t privy to what exactly this something is.   Readers can use their imagination, though.

When Feathertop sees himself in a mirror and understands what he truly is, the confidence he had in himself goes out the window like a wisp of smoke.  My favorite passage came toward the end of the story when Mother Rigby expresses what could be the theme, of not just this story, but the theme of many stories of New England witches:

My poor, dear, pretty Feathertop!  There are thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and charlatans in the world, made up of just such a jumble of worn-out, forgotten, and good-for-nothing trash, as he was!  Yet they live in fair repute, and never see themselves for what they are!

The subtitle of this story is “A Moralized Legend”.  While there is an aspect of fairy-tale lesson learning in the story, Hawthorne’s writing and story-telling ability brings out lessons that humanity in general could learn as opposed to simply teaching children good behavior.   And he does this with a finesse that would keep “Feathertop” from getting lumped in with other stories that have a moral as an ending.

Posted in Short Stories

“The Boy Who Hated Girls”

Bert Higgens has issues with his girlfriend, Charlotte, because she thinks Bert’s band teacher is nuts.  His band teacher is none other than Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Lincoln High faculty member, George Helmholtz.  This story is also found in Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.

In “The Boy Who Hated Girls”, Helmholtz has a striking revelation that a number of his star pupils look to him as a father figure – especially the ones that don’t have fathers, like Bert.  When Bert is promoted to another teacher, he begins to slack off, showing up drunk for practice, and generally doing whatever he can to get back under Mr. Helmholtz’s tutelage.

Bagombo Snuff Box

This Helmholtz story has a slightly more serious tone and I didn’t think it really worked as well as the other stories I’ve read with this character.  I had grown to enjoy the light-heartedness of the misadventures of Vonnegut’s band leader.  At one point, Helmholtz realizes that many of these students went on to become alcoholics and drug addicts.  This struck me as funny but it took a couple of days of thinking about the story before the thought crossed my mind “Oh, that was funny.”  The story also doesn’t seem to stand on it’s own as well.  It seemed to be a part of something larger.  When the story ended with Helmholtz making some confessions to the school nurse, Miss Peach, I wondered whether this story line would continue somewhere else.  And I wondered whether Miss Peach would show up again somewhere – she could be just as interesting as Helmholtz.

For an interesting post about George Helmholtz, check out this one from Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

Four from Flannery O’Connor

Occasionally I hear the expression “better angels of our nature”.  When I read Flannery O’Connor’s stories, I think of that expression – not because it represents her characters and plots but because she seems to write about characters and situations that reflect the EXACT OPPOSITE of this phrase.

I finished reading the first four stories in her well-known collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories.  Her characters are not necessarily likable, but I couldn’t help but get drawn into their thoughts and feelings.

I had read the title story prior to now and remembered the chilling ending.  Knowing how the story ended made everything about the rest of the story a foreshadowing of what would happen – which made the ending even more chilling.  Feeling both sympathy and anger for the grandmother during her continuous yammering made the story unsettling.  I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the Misfit criminal’s own yammering about how Jesus “threw everything out of balance”.  I’ve realized that O’Connor uses a significant amount of Christian imagery in her writing but these are by no means your typical Sunday School stories.  While I was reading “A Good Man is Hard To Find” , I kept thinking that Joel and Ethan Coen could probably make a great film version.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

“The River” continues with more religious ideas as a small boy gets taken by his babysitter to be baptized.  O’Connor weaves themes of blind faith and reasonable doubt into the preacher and the crowd that the boy encounters at the river.  The ending was not unexpected as the boy takes the preacher’s religious language literally with some unpleasant results.

I couldn’t help but like Lucynell, the old woman and Mr. Shiftlet, the vagrant worker in spite of what they did to Lucynell, the daughter, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”.  As the story progressed, I’d ask myself “Why would I like these people?”  Maybe O’Connor wants readers to ask that question?

I think one of the longest climbs up a flight of stairs occurred in “A Stroke of Good Fortune” .  Thirty-four year-old Ruby, while she climbs the steps, lets the reader know about her younger brother, Rufus, returning from war, her husband, Bill Hill (I liked that name), and Madame Zoleeta, who has predicted her physical ailment will end in “a stroke of good fortune”.  The reader never fully understands Ruby’s problem; however, several physical conditions are thrown around.  By the time Ruby gets to the top of the steps she is rather winded – and so is the reader.

Of these four, I believe the title story was my favorite.  I’m looking forward to reading more of Flannery O’Connor’s stories in the near future.  Have you ever read any of her stories or novels?  What are your thoughts?  What was your favorite?

Posted in Short Stories

Oscar Wilde: “The Selfish Giant”

I swear I shuffled the cards!  The luck of the draw (whatever or whomever that may be) decided I needed to read another Oscar Wilde story as last week’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” wasn’t my favorite story.  This time I read “The Selfish Giant” and had a vastly different experience.  In fact, I’m glad I read this one after last week’s because for some reason these stories seem to be complimentary to each other.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: The Selfish Giant/The Star Child

This story also is written in fairy-tale style; however, it’s significantly shorter.  The Selfish Giant goes through a redemption process as he allows children to play in his garden.  The Giant’s attitude and heart corresponds and contrasts beautifully to the weather and the seasons  – also beautifully described by Wilde.  I found the Giant’s final meeting with the boy who was “wounded by love” especially moving.  The religious motif that Wilde weaves into the story works because it’s neither preachy nor teachy.

I guess I was more in the mood for the redemption of a giant than a fisherman who loses his soul.  I highly recommend “The Selfish Giant” and I will be reading more Oscar Wilde in the future.